Knickerbocker / knickers
This nickname for a New Yorker is perhaps best known today as the source of the name of the New York Knicks basketball team. But it was once in more general use.
It got its start in Washington Irving’s 1809 Knickerbocker’s History of New York, allegedly written by the fictitious Diedrich Knickerbocker. By 1848 edition of that work, Irving noted that the name was being used by New Yorkers as a nickname:
When I find New Yorkers of Dutch descent priding themselves upon being “genuine Knickerbockers.”
The name transferred to the style of men’s loose-fitting trousers, gathered at the knee because of illustrations of similar knee-breeches in Irving’s book. From the Times of London, 23 May 1859:
The suggestion...is that volunteers should not wear trowsers, but I would recommend as a substitute what are commonly known as nickerbockers [sic], i.e. long loose breeches generally worn without braces, and buckled or buttoned round the waist and knee.
This was also shortened to knickers, a term that is still in use in the United States. In Britain, however, knickers also transferred to mean women’s underpants, a term that dominates British usage today. From the 1882 publication Queen:
I recommend...flannel knickers in preference to flannel petticoat.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton